(Sequel to "Compromise".) Considering how long and hard he had to work in order to become the Hokage, Naruto certainly hadn't expected it to be an easy job. Little did he know just how right he wa...
She could use a cup or two of saké, as she had an appointment with the Otokage this evening. There was one proposal in particular that she’d need to push through, and she knew for a fact that she’d have to fight him tooth and nail for it. Despite her vast experience with browbeating the village elders, she found the Uchiha to be an abnormally daunting foe. His usual expression was icy enough; but when angered, she was almost willing to bet he could freeze a pitcher of water with that basilisk stare of his.
That brat could certainly stand to lighten up from time to time. Maybe she should serve saké during the actual meeting. She doubted he would drink enough to impair his vaunted judgment, but at least it was a thought.
She had arranged to meet him in a less formal tea room instead of her office; this would be one of those meetings that never officially happened. Shizune hurried to warm their best iwai-zake, and had a tray ready and positioned by the time the other Kage arrived.
The Otokage swept into the tatami-floored room with all of his customary subtle grace, and took a seat on the cushion she indicated with a gesture of her hand. He greeted her formally and made an absent comment about the chill of the evening, but his eyes scrutinized the saké set warily.
“I thought ocha was traditional in this setting.” She could never manage to get the upper hand with this boy. The dark eyes flicked to the tray, then back up to lock with hers, narrowing dangerously. “I assume you would never consider something as futile and insulting as trying to ply me with alcohol.”
If there was one good thing she could say about the Uchiha, it would be that he was candid. She decided on a tactful change of subject. “I called you here this evening to discuss the future of the Hokage position.”
The Otokage’s haughty expression would have been aggravating if she didn’t suspect that there might have been some hurt behind it. “Konohagakure isn’t my village, and I doubt you would respect my opinion on the matter. I don’t see my part in this.”
Tsunade snorted in dark amusement. “Oh, you will. And you might want to reconsider snubbing the booze before you do. You’ll probably need it when you realize where this is going.”
The boy’s irritation seemed to be rising by the moment, and he looked down his nose at her in a way that was purely Uchiha. “Why bother to propose something that you know I won’t even consider?”
She put as much purring menace as she could into her reply. “Because you’re going to accept this measure before you leave tonight, even if I have to ram the treaty down your throat.”
She had expected an explosion of outrage, but a flicker of comprehension crossed his handsome face. The boy’s eyes closed for a moment while he grimaced, then he reached without looking for a cup of saké. When he brought it to his lips, he paused, eyes finally sliding open to reveal a look of weary resignation.
“This is about Naruto.” It wasn’t a question. This child really was shrewd.
She picked up her cup and absentmindedly traced the rim with her fingers as she spoke. “Naruto is my chosen successor. You’ll receive word from me, probably within the month, inviting you to his ascension ceremony. Of course, he won’t even know until the chosen day. I don’t plan to tell him until the other Kage have officially recognized him as my heir.” The Otokage didn’t bother to nod, but she knew he was listening closely.
Strictly speaking, anything related to Naruto’s seal was a state secret, and she wasn’t authorized to discuss it with anyone who hadn’t been granted that level of security clearance; to do so would be considered treason, even for the Hokage. Uchiha Sasuke most certainly didn’t have the security clearance, but she was willing to go out on a very precarious limb for Naruto’s sake. She would take that chance, but Naruto’s life truly depended on the sullen boy staring her down with the dignity of a man thrice his age.
“I won’t beat around the bush.” She took a sip and stretched for the tokkuri to pour herself more. The Uchiha watched her silently with solemn eyes. “His seal is weakening, despite all of my attempts to stop it. I’ve slowed the progression to a crawl, but it’s still happening. Sakura’s medical jutsu are excellent and Kakashi is fairly skilled with seals, but only a small number of people from my generation could truly handle a seal like that. And now I’m the last of that select group…”
She could feel the exhaustion of her age in her bones, and took another bracing gulp of saké. She let the burn in her throat subside before continuing. “As I’m sure you’ve gathered, I don’t have very much time left myself, and once I’m gone, there won’t be anyone to take my place. If the seal continues to deteriorate, then Naruto-”
“I understand the repercussions. There’s no need to elaborate.” He cut her off sharply, frowning. “What do you propose?” She hid her smile as his concern for Naruto rose to the fore; she was fully prepared to exploit those feelings for her ends.
“An amendment to the current treaty. The Sharingan has the unique ability to suppress the Kyuubi’s chakra, and I’m sure a genius such as yourself could master the seal-manipulating jutsu without too much effort.” She let the smug smile break through as he huffed in annoyance; she knew he detested flattery.
She unrolled a scroll into the space between them, turning it to face him. “I suggest that the Otokage and Hokage meet at least once a lunar month, for the duration of not less than forty-eight hours, in order to ‘discuss pertinent matters of state and peacekeeping’. Of course, the treaty itself won’t mention that you’ll also be tending to Naruto’s seal during that time, and I’m sure you understand the importance of secrecy in that regard.”
The Uchiha’s eyes blinked blood red as he quickly scanned the document, ensuring that there was no hidden fine-print or additions that she hadn’t mentioned. For a moment, she envied him his photographic memory; it must make cross-referencing all of his paperwork the labor of a single afternoon.
“You’ve already signed and added your seal. The only element that it lacks is my own.” His tone was mild, but a spark of peril glinted amongst the crimson when he lifted his head to lock eyes with her again. “It’s almost as if I have no choice in this at all.” The tomoe spun slowly, as if in warning.
“That’s because you don’t.” Her reply was sharp and firm; he knew the truth, so she wouldn’t insult his intelligence by trying to evade it.
“And what leverage, exactly, would you be able to apply to force me to sign?” He almost sounded idly curious; she would have believed it if it weren’t for the hint of a threat still hanging in the air. “This sort of high-handed diplomacy only works in your favor if blackmail is involved.”
“I’m sure you already know what I’m going to say.” Tsunade cocked an eyebrow ever so slightly. She wouldn’t have caught the flash of shock in those impervious marble features if she hadn’t been looking for it. He probably realized that she would say it if he refused to sign. The eyes searching her face were a harmless ebony.
“I have no idea what you’re trying to imply.” His voice was even, but the defiant declaration still sounded rushed and anxious to her practiced ear. “I believe this conversation is over.” He snatched up the treaty and rose swiftly to his feet, the expensive rice paper crinkling faintly under his tense fingers.
He remembered himself long enough to give her a shallow bow, and then began his hasty retreat. Tsunade was sure that she had read him right, but there was always a chance that she’d never see that treaty again. She needed to call his bluff, but pushing him too far would be disastrous. It was time for a risk as big as any in her long, notorious career.
“You love Naruto, and you’re not going to let him die.”
The Otokage lurched to a halt, and the temperature of the room seemed to plummet. Ah, now she had definitely touched on a nerve. She wasn’t exactly sure what the depths of his feelings were, or even if they existed beyond the bounds of a very complex friendship, but apparently that particular four letter word was close enough to the truth to rankle. Though he was probably angrier that she had used his perceived “weakness” for Naruto against him- had actually said it out loud- rather than the fact that she had guessed some capacity of his feelings.
He nearly shoved the fusuma off its track with the force used to fling it open, probably scaring Shizune out of her wits in the process. He departed the building like a midsummer thunderstorm, and Tsunade could finally relax.
For all of his tantrum-throwing, she was sure that she’d receive a signed copy of the treaty from his retinue by the morning.
Shizune’s startled face peeked around the door frame before she hurried forward. “What on Earth did you say to him? I’ve never seen the Otokage so furious!”
“I gave him what he was too proud to ask for.”
The sunset over Konoha was truly breathtaking, especially from the top of the Hokage mountain. Naruto had finally managed to sneak away from all the well-wishers at the reception, and had set aside his formal attire. The Hokage’s ceremonial hat was placed reverently to the side, while his robe of office was stretched out beneath him. The warmth radiating from the Yondaime’s head offset the cool evening breeze, so he leaned back on his hands and basked in the warm red and gold hues of the western sky.
The actual ascension ceremony hadn’t taken very long, though he had seen Iruka-sensei struggling not to cry through the whole thing like the mother of the bride at a wedding. He had later cornered Naruto to threaten that he’d better not screw this job up, before swamping him with a massive, paternal hug and adding in an undertone how very proud he was. Then it had been Naruto’s turn to fight back tears.
He grinned and rapped the stone with his heel, as if to get its attention.
“I’m going to have my face up here with yours soon, old man. What do you think of that?” A drawling voice sounded suddenly behind him.
“No one wants to see your ugly mug on a daily basis, let alone immortalized in twenty tons of rock.” Naruto felt a smile spread across his face, but quickly hid it in a mock scowl as he looked over his shoulder. Sasuke stood within his lengthening shadow, the colors of the sunset highlighting the acute contrast between his fair skin and black hair.
“Oi, bastard. No need to be rude.” He scooted over and patted the stone beside him, smiling cheekily. “Besides, I’m known around Konoha to be quite the looker, these days.”
Sasuke settled next to him with a derisive glance for the community below. “Well, you’re the leader of this village now, so they must be blind and stupid.” He sounded serious, but the tiny upward curve of his mouth was emphasized by the brilliant golden light.
Naruto elbowed him playfully in the ribs and pretended to sulk. “It may not be a big deal to you, bastard, since you became a Kage first. But this has always been my dream, and I’ve finally managed to get here.”
Naruto took a deep breath and let it go slowly, enjoying the warm feeling of contentment flowing through his whole body. After all these years, he really had made it. They sat together for several moments, watching the sun sinking below the horizon, before Naruto broke the silence.
“Was it hard to become the Otokage?” After a few long seconds, Naruto turned to study Sasuke’s profile while he strove to find the right word to describe it.
It’s not that he had set out to become the Otokage. Far from it. The defeat of Uchiha Madara had given him some purpose for his life after his brother’s death, but the end of that endeavor had been punctuated by Konoha’s official condemnation. With no purpose and no village, Sasuke had been set adrift in a sea of apathy.
But the other members of Hebi had chosen to remain with him, for whatever their personal reasons happened to be. Sasuke didn’t particularly care either way at that point, but Juugo had nearly had a breakdown, begging Sasuke to continue curbing his insanity. Karin had quickly added that she would follow him too, since she and Sasuke worked so very well together, and it would be such a shame for them to have to part.
Suigetsu had promptly called her a drooling bitch in heat, and Sasuke spent the next ten minutes tuning out the resultant screeching and Suigetsu’s self-congratulatory laughter. Suigetsu himself decided that he’d stick with them, since it was always so entertaining. He also mentioned that he’d need somewhere to return to once he’d collected all seven swords, which had set Sasuke’s listless mind to planning for the first time in days.
He ended up leading his merry band of psychopaths back to Orochimaru’s main lair, and while most of the tunnels were unlivable or collapsed, the library and several large rooms were still intact. Karin had complicated that arrangement by immediately turning her nose up to the idea of living permanently in such a dump. Her eyes had glanced in his direction as she announced that it was no suitable place to raise a family.
Sasuke had told her that she was free to leave anytime, and Suigetsu had nearly choked himself laughing. But Juugo had cut in to say that he would help her build a house above ground if she wanted; he seemed to enjoy the open air and birdlife of the region.
The first stages of construction were disastrous at best. But the skeletal frame of the house began acting as a beacon for Orochimaru’s former experiments. With monstrous abilities and reputations as Oto-nin, no other village would take them; many of them recognized Sasuke as a liberator, and clamored to be allowed to stay.
Sasuke himself certainly didn’t own the land, so he just gave them an indifferent look and carried on with his own business; the library held a host of scrolls that Orochimaru had jealously hoarded during his long life, and even apathy couldn’t dampen his curiosity.
That was about when Jinsei-san had arrived. Tanaka Jinsei was a former shinobi of the Hidden Rain, with a missing arm and a fresh scar arching over his jaw. He appeared one day with his gentle wife Kanae-san, a medi-nin of decent skill, requesting work for a man who wasn’t afraid to use his one arm to its limit.
Behind his bravado and her polite smile, he could sense a hint of desperation, and they both appeared a bit worse for the wear. There were plenty of odd jobs around the camp, and a medi-nin would always be useful. He told them they could stay if they wished, and left it at that.
That was more or less how it all started. Because once they had settled in, Kanae-san sent word to her older brother about the fresh new life they had discovered. Apparently this brother of hers, Gotou Masaru, was a civilian carpenter, and since the ruins of Hidden Rain were completely unsalvageable, he and his small family arrived within days.
There was certainly more work to be done than Masaru-san could handle alone, so before long the entire Gotou clan had turned up and was relaying planks of wood through the encampment. They were quickly followed by other tradesmen clans, one after another; the Inoue blacksmiths, Higa electricians, and Nakamura plumbers arrived pulling carts packed with their belongings and children.
All of this happened more or less beneath Sasuke’s notice, and he spent his waking hours studying ancient jutsu. He couldn’t even mark precisely when better food began to appear on his plate. When they ran out of candles, he began bringing the scrolls above ground to read in the natural light.
Scores of buildings had sprung up in the area and nearly four hundred people were bustling from one to another; he had taken a moment to wonder how long he’d been living and sleeping in the library. All of the buildings were of excellent quality, with sturdy walls made from the local pine, and the clang of several blacksmith’s hammers sounded rhythmically in the distance.
Children chased each other through the dirt streets, and the tantalizing aroma of someone cooking gyudon scented the summer air. He spent an hour wandering the grounds, vaguely startled that everyone seemed to recognize him. The sound of “Good afternoon, Sasuke-sama!” or “Our best regards, Sasuke-sama!” seemed to ring out wherever he went.
When a group of Kanae-san’s young nieces were pushed forward by their smiling mother to present him with a bouquet of wildflowers and a chorus of “Thank you for letting us live in your village, Sasuke-sama!”, it was clear that there was no escaping the facts. This was actually happening, and he couldn’t ignore it any longer.
He spent that evening drawing up plans for a marketplace and the beginnings of their defensive fortifications. When the last of the scrolls had been committed to memory, the final remnants of the lair were filled in to provide firmer foundations for new housing. He didn’t especially mourn the loss of those scrolls; Orochimaru’s interests had never been particularly pleasant.
Sasuke was offered a tasteful residence on elevated ground near what would become the heart of the community. A shinobi village operated on a mixture of both knowledge and paranoia, so he made a point to learn the names, origins, and habits of the growing populace.
The people seemed to have a strange fascination with him in return, and if he had accepted every social invitation extended in those months, he never would’ve had a chance to eat at his own table. He did accept some out of obligation, at first, but he found that he didn’t abhor their company as he had expected. They were gracious and respectful in his presence, and it became less of a duty as time wore on.
Shinobi and civilians alike began to pour in from the wreckage of Hidden Rain, and once the marketplace was finished, merchants altered their trade routes to include the new village. This, in turn, drew craftsmen and farmers from the surrounding countryside, and the civilian quarter to the south had to be expanded twice within three months.
Jinsei-san had become indispensable during this time. As the first civilian to arrive in the village, the others viewed him as their voice in domestic affairs; but as a former shinobi, he understood that aspect of village life as well. He had a talent for organization, and a canny knack for resolving disputes. He once joked to Sasuke that one arm was perfect for paper-pushing, and when it came to sorting out civilian matters, Sasuke left it in his capable hand.
When the first envoy from Konoha arrived and asked to be pointed in the direction of the administrative buildings, a mildly embarrassed Jinsei-san had to admit that they hadn’t been built yet. But he explained that all administrative issues were currently being handled from Sasuke’s home, and offered to personally escort the Konoha-nin there.
That’s how Kakashi ended up in his living room.
Sasuke had been seated at a low desk, in the middle of writing a commission for streetlights in the new south-western district, when Jinsei-san announced that he had a guest. Sasuke hadn’t bothered to look up, merely muttering a quick “Please show them in…” and continuing the flowing brush strokes for the sun kanji of the Higa clan.
The following silence had denoted that his visitor was a shinobi, as no one above academy level made noise while moving. But the cheerfully familiar “Yo!” directly in front of him certainly wasn’t expected. His hand paused for a split second, and the voices of Naruto and Sakura screamed “You’re late!” in the depths of his memories. To his credit, he continued the sentence without any tell-tale blotches and laid aside his brush before looking up.
“Ah, so it really is you, Sasuke.” The man before him was nearly identical to the one he had known as a genin, but he spotted faint wrinkles around his visible eye when he smiled. “You wouldn’t believe some of the rumors about this place that have been flying around in the past few months.”
“I’ve heard them all, I’m sure. What can I do for you?” Sasuke nodded towards the empty cushion at Kakashi’s feet. He settled onto it with a sigh; Karin must have been watching from the reception room, because she took it as her cue to deliver a tray of tea.
Sasuke had given up on insisting that it wasn’t necessary; her apartment was two blocks away, but she always seemed to appear in his kitchen whenever a guest arrived. She had a habit of lingering, especially if the guest turned out to be a woman. He made it clear that they were to be left alone, and waved her out of the room.
“So Sasuke-kun still has trouble with the ladies? How nostalgic.” One look at Sasuke’s thunderous expression had him waving his hands in a vaguely defensive gesture, as if he were trying to ward off his glare. “Now, now…I remember that face as well. No need to get upset.”
He reigned in his temper, but let some of his irritation color his voice. “You’ve still failed to mention why you’re here.”
“Hmm, well…It seems that I’m being paid for an A-rank mission, just to drink tea and reminisce. Konoha must consider you to be a very dangerous man, Sasuke.” Kakashi made a move towards the tray Karin had left.
“I wouldn’t touch the tea, if I were you.” Sasuke kept his face fastidiously blank, speaking in clipped tones.
Kakashi had paused while reaching for a cup, and raised an incredulous eyebrow. “Poisoned?”
“Disgusting. She can’t even boil water.” There was utter silence for a moment before Kakashi burst out laughing. Even Sasuke felt his own lip twitch.
“It seems that I’ve underestimated your growth, Sasuke.” The smile lines around his eye were even more apparent than before. He took one last deep breath and let it go in a sigh. “So if the tea’s a lost cause, then I suppose I should come to the point…”
“Would you consider allying yourself with Konoha?” All mirth was gone from Kakashi’s body language, and his black eye was vigilant. But Sasuke had already considered this eventuality in advance, and had his reply at the ready.
“If I did, then I would become an important supporter in the event of a war between Fire Country and Lightning Country.” A delicate eyebrow arched pointedly. “So I suppose the real question is, what is your village willing to offer Sound in return?” This wasn’t a matter of his feelings toward Leaf; in the end, it came down to what was best for the village.
“Ah, Sasuke….Thinking like a diplomat already.” Then Kakashi bowed deeply, his voice switching from fond to formal. “I will convey your concerns to my superiors. You will be contacted shortly with an offer, but it is also within your rights to send an envoy of your choice to negotiate the terms.”
Sasuke bowed in return, but frowned slightly as Kakashi straightened. “Within my rights?”
“Your rights as Otokage.” Kakashi had seemed surprised as Sasuke’s frown deepened. “Now then…You are the Otokage, aren’t you?”
“Nothing official has ever been decided.”
“Ha!” Kakashi shook his head in sheer disbelief. “I’m starting to wonder just what kind of village this is. Well, allow me to sort this out for you.”
Kakashi had climbed to his feet, gesturing for Sasuke to follow him. There was a group of children playing in the street outside, and he could immediately recognize the voices of Kimura Hidehiko’s boys. Sasuke paused in the gateway of his residence as Kakashi strolled right up to the youngest, Tenkou. The child stared up at Kakashi with all of the seriousness that only a three-year-old can manage while sucking on a fist.
“Excuse me, but who is the Otokage?” Tenkou-kun had blinked up at him, then moved to look around his knees. When he saw Sasuke at the gate, he used his free hand to point.
Kakashi had crouched down to his level. “And who is that? What’s his name?” The boy studied Kakashi’s face for several seconds before the fist was finally released.
“S’suke-sama.” Kakashi reached down to ruffle the toddler’s dark brown hair as he stood, and turned back to Sasuke. The curve of his eye spoke volumes of amusement.
“Congratulations, my lord. Is there an envoy you’d like to send?”
Naruto leaned over to bump Sasuke’s shoulder with his own, ending the hush once again. “Heh….Either way, you managed to do it before me. Power aside, I bet you became a Kage just because you knew it’d piss me off.”
The slight quirk to the lip was almost a smile, as his soft voice confirmed Naruto’s suspicions. “The thought has crossed my mind.”
Naruto jostled him again to retaliate; Sasuke favored him with a mild dirty look, but their shoulders remained close enough this time for him to feel the heat radiating from Sasuke’s body like a phantom touch.
As the last sliver of the sun’s disk slipped into darkness, Naruto wondered if this was what it would have felt like if Sasuke had never left.
Naruto’s first month as Hokage was a smooth and happy one. But as it came nearer and nearer to its close, he could feel his anticipation intensify. Sasuke would be returning to Konoha, and Naruto could hardly contain his enthusiasm.
The feeling of urgency grew with each day, and Naruto realized that it was probably because he needed to see Sasuke with his own eyes in order to believe that these visits would actually happen. The Otokage was due to appear at sunset, and Naruto didn’t get a single ounce of work done the entire afternoon, despite Kakashi’s subtle threats.
Kakashi had agreed to take the position of his personal aide, at least temporarily, claiming that a few weeks away from the field would do wonders for his tired old body. Naruto had promptly called his bluff, saying that he wasn’t going to screw up a simple job like signing papers, and if either Tsunade or Sakura wanted to spy on him, they’d better come do it themselves. Kakashi had only smiled.
When the door opened, he was expecting his former teacher to sidle in and chew him out for the third time in as many hours, but he was surprised to see that it was Sai. He was still dressed in ANBU gear, barring his mask, and he was smiling cheerfully. Naruto couldn’t shake a sneaking sensation of foreboding, and his instincts were quickly vindicated.
“Kakashi-san mentioned that you’ve been staring out the window and fidgeting since before lunch. If you want to get the Otokage some flowers, I read in a book that red roses would be most suitable.” Naruto had stared at Sai for a moment, completely flummoxed. “Kakashi-san also said that he could suggest a particular cherry tree that’s perfect for springtime confessions.”
It took three seconds for Naruto to turn bright red with indignation, and another two before he started sputtering. When he drew a kunai and declared that he wasn’t “a lovesick girl, you socially retarded son of a bitch!”, Sai decided to beat a hasty retreat.
Kakashi didn’t bat an eye as the door rocked on its hinges when it slammed, but he was fairly sure that a Captain of the ANBU had never been dismissed by the Hokage in such a manner, at least not within the recorded history of Konoha. Sai continued to smile. “Ah…I think he took that very well.”
Naruto was still slightly agitated an hour or two later, but tried his best to hide it from Sasuke. They made small talk about the trip between Sound and Leaf while Naruto led him to the sealing room that Ba-chan used to use with him. It was an insulated basement room within the Hokage Tower, reinforced with thick granite to provide protection to the building’s foundations from stray chakra; as an added bonus, the dense rock also warded against listening ears.
The room had a polished white limestone floor that was perfect for drawing the more complicated, room-encompassing seal symbols, though they agreed that Sasuke would only be familiarizing himself with the form of Naruto’s seal this month.
Naruto had left the Hokage vestments in his office, opting for the ease and comfort of his jounin uniform sans vest. He began to remove his shirt when he realized that someone had left tea and cushions within a large circle of oil lamps in the center of the room. Sasuke was probably a bit tired from traveling, and it would be rude to rush into things when he hadn’t even offered his guest a cup of tea.
Sasuke watched Naruto pour for them both, and politely accepted his with both hands. The formal atmosphere between them felt wrong, somehow, but he held his tongue rather than ask Naruto what was bothering him. Knowing Naruto, he would blurt it out sooner or later.
He took a sip, while Naruto gulped his own in an almost nervous gesture. The tea was astoundingly bitter, with an unusual nutty aftertaste, but he supposed that Tsunade had collected a wide range of rare medicinal teas in her time. He absently wondered if she had gifted Naruto with this one, or if it was part of a stock she had left behind with her title.
He moved to take another sip, when he noticed that his hand was trembling. How strange.
The room suddenly lurched sideways, and he braced himself against the floor with both hands. The sound of a cup shattering seemed to come from a long distance away. Sasuke felt a crippling wave of nausea move through him, and a cold sweat broke out over his body. He scrambled to focus through the fog in his mind, and a moment of clarity struck him like lightning.
The tea. There had been something in the tea.
He had been so complacent, not even considering the possibility of poison. And while he had intentionally built up resistance to several major poisons over the years, he had never been careless enough to have it tested before. But suspecting the tea hadn’t even crossed his mind. Not while he was here, in the heart of Konoha, with Naruto.
Naruto. He heart pounded hollowly against his ribs, adrenaline clearing his mind further. He lifted his gaze from the shards at his knees, not knowing what to expect.
Naruto was still sitting upright, but blood seeped slowly from between his lips. The eyes staring blankly forward shifted in and out of focus, pupils slitted and irises as red as the drops dripping sluggishly from his chin. He reached forward with one hand blindly, fighting to breach the meager gap between them, as a pleading whisper jumped the distance with ease.
“Sa…Sasuke…” For the first time in years, Sasuke knew panic.
He grasped for Naruto’s hand with both of his, crawling over the broken porcelain without regard for the resulting cuts. He arrived at his side in time for the blonde man to go limp, malevolent chakra seeming to leak from every pore.
Sasuke kept his voice calm, if only for Naruto’s sake. “I’m here. I’m right here.” He lowered him as delicately as possible to the cold stone floor, wiping Naruto’s mouth with his sleeve; Naruto swallowed thickly, and Sasuke realized that he was probably swallowing more blood.
“The Kyuubi…” Gleaming white fangs began to push past Naruto’s upper lip, and a rumbling growl followed. An edgy moment of silence ensued, and Sasuke touched Naruto’s cheek. The wild chakra stung the tips of his fingers, but the contact seemed to help Naruto to regain some of himself. Gentle blue eyes flashed up at him.
“It’s…trying to break free, Sasuke.” Naruto fought it with everything he had, muscles clenching irregularly, the tendons of his neck standing out in sharp relief with each convulsion. “I can’t control my own chakra, let alone his.” The terrified blue eyes went vacant for a moment, blending into a deep heliotrope color. “He’s laughing.”
The transition into Sharingan was so second nature to Sasuke that it took him a moment to realize that it hadn’t happened. Chakra refused to gather behind his eyes, or any other area of his body for that matter. His attempt to mold chakra was equally fruitless; the balance between his mind and body had been disrupted so completely, that he ran the risk of destroying his own organs.
In this state, he wouldn’t be able to use even the most simple of sealing jutsu. The only other option to suppress the youkai was the Sharingan, but the Sharingan required flawless control at the best of times.
A pained whine escaped Naruto’s lips, as the skin of his cheeks began to split open to release an oozing mix of blood and chakra. If Sasuke was having trouble controlling himself, then he couldn’t imagine what Naruto was facing; with the Yondaime’s seal already weakened by time and the demon’s previous efforts, this was a perfect opportunity for the Kyuubi to triumph.
According to the information Tsunade had provided him, Naruto’s seal was anchored to his soul; his emotions, his will to suppress the Kyuubi was nearly as important as the structure of the seal itself. With his physical control weakening, his last defense was his own determination. But even Naruto’s iron resolve would only suffice for a half an hour like this, at the most. Naruto would die, and Sasuke would have to watch, powerless to stop it. He nearly screamed with rage, but Naruto groped for his hand.
“Sasuke…” He bent down to catch the hoarse murmur. “Did you bring a dagger?” When Sasuke nodded the affirmative, Naruto gave him a tender, apologetic smile. “I want you to promise…If I become a monster, I want you to save the village.”
He guided their joined hands up to his neck, and then brought them to rest over his breastbone. “My throat or my heart…” A flash of this choice assaulted Sasuke’s mind: a wet, gaping gash under Naruto’s chin; a swift plunge angled through the fifth and sixth ribs; Naruto’s lifeblood spurting forth, drenching Sasuke to the skin, as he twitched and jerked through his last gurgling breaths. “I want you to-”
The rest of that thought was cut off when Sasuke pulled back his fist and let fly with every bit of strength he could muster. Naruto’s head whipped to the side, and he lay there, blinking several times in surprise. Pure, summer sky blue eyes returned to Sasuke’s face, which had twisted itself into an unholy mask of fury. He hauled Naruto up by his shirt, less than a finger’s width between their noses, and hissed abuse nearly against his mouth.
“That’s the most asinine thing you’ve ever said.” He punctuated the declaration with a shake, and their lips accidentally brushed for a split second. “You’ve never given up before, you idiot, not ever! Even when it meant you were a damned fool to keep trying.”
The idea that Naruto would surrender here, after striving so long and hard for the sake of others- for Sasuke’s own sake- made him want to spit in his face. His body quaked with wrath and horror, and he wasn’t sure if the stinging in his eyes was due to chakra use or something shameful. “If you decide to give up now, I will never forgive you!”
Naruto stared at him, wide-eyed and gasping, as if he’d never truly seen him before. His mouth began to open, though whether in protest or wonder, it was impossible to tell. “Sa-”
“Shut up!” Sasuke’s hand remained linked with Naruto’s, even as his nails grew long and sharp enough to pierce clean through Sasuke’s palm. He only squeezed tighter, Sharingan eyes pinning and challenging him at the same time. “Keep fighting, moron, and I’ll do the rest.”
A weak, wincing grin spread over Naruto’s wounded face, but it was a grin nonetheless. “Right. Let’s do it, bastard.” Already the demon’s hold on him seemed to weaken.
If Sasuke could master the Goukakyuu no jutsu with a seven-year-old’s chakra control, then he could maintain the Sharingan now. He felt an aching pain rising in his eyes, but he focused on the Kyuubi. The echo of its deep laughter rang louder and louder in his ears until he was facing it within the confines of Naruto’s mind.
“Oh, so the Uchiha boy arrives at last? Having a little trouble with your eyes, are you?” The gigantic jowls pulled back to reveal more of the glinting fangs, and wicked laughter seemed to shake the very bars before it. “Do you care so much for my host, that you would risk blindness for his sake?”
A sudden surge of the foul chakra rammed against him; he threw up an arm to stem the tide, but a large amount of it still managed to escape past him into the darkness. In the physical realm, he could hear Naruto make the sound of an animal in pain, no doubt reaching the limit of his chakra supply. Naruto wouldn’t be able to fight the Kyuubi anymore, not matter how much willpower he still possessed. Naruto clutched his hand tighter, the claws slicing his own palm through Sasuke’s. He felt the gush of Naruto’s hot blood mixing with his own as it ran down their wrists.
He used his other hand to yank at the bottom of Naruto’s shirt, pulling it up under his arms. The swirls and symbols of his seal burned black against the tan skin of his belly, scarlet chakra sizzling over the markings. Sasuke’s mind flashed back to confront the youkai.
“I made a point to personally search through the extensive library in the ruins of Otogakure, and I’ve found some very interesting literature on sealing jutsu.” The kitsune’s vermillion eyes narrowed with clear loathing. Sasuke pressed his advantage. “Not to mention the texts owned by my clan. The oldest ones from the founding of Konoha are especially intriguing. You’ve mentioned the name of Uchiha Madara before, so I’m sure you remember him.”
Sasuke used all of his strength against the next rush of demonic power, blocking it completely. Sasuke didn’t have ink to draw new seals, but he had something even better: their blood. His hand hovered over Naruto’s seal, and the youkai snarled.
“You’re currently in the seal equivalent of a cage. I could put you in the seal equivalent of a stranglehold.”
But then the Kyuubi began to laugh again, its crazed eyes mocking him. “You would destroy the boy if you attempted it.”
Another swell of power buffeted his mind, but he held his ground. “Perhaps a passing seal specialist or medi-nin would, but I know Naruto too well for that. I will always be able to distinguish his mind from yours.” He could hear Naruto whisper his name one last time before he lost consciousness, the degree of his exhaustion pulling his deeper than even the Kyuubi’s influence could reach. “Naruto would be safe and intact, able to draw on your power as he saw fit. You really would become nothing more than a source of powerful chakra.”
The demon studied him acutely in silence, before it pinioned him with a pleased, knowing look. “Idle threats, boy. Thanks to your own gullible carelessness, you don’t have the chakra control for something that delicate. As you both are now, you really would kill him.” The chakra attacks from before were dwarfed by the inferno that erupted from the cage. The oil lamps around them shattered in unison from the shockwave.
Sasuke fought it back, screaming with exertion. He could feel his own chakra reserves running dangerously low. If the demon fox could keep up those sorts of assaults, then he would prevail simply by outlasting Sasuke’s stamina. He had no choice but to use a temporary solution before he had nothing left to give.
His hand slipped free of Naruto’s, and he used their blood to add symbols around the edges of his current seal. A ring of five for strength, and a wider ring of eight for balance. He formed a flurry of seals with his hands, then pounded them both into Naruto’s stomach, pouring as much of his power as he could into the protective rings.
The new symbols burned as black and perfect as the originals, and the extra blood from Sasuke’s hands sizzled into nothing. The Kyuubi’s howl of impotent wrath faded in his ears, and the aura of evil chakra around Naruto’s body withered. A small trickle of the kitsune’s chakra continued to creep through, but it was just enough to start healing the wounds on the blonde man’s face and hand.
Sasuke’s entire frame was racked with the shudders of leftover adrenaline and fatigue. He let the Sharingan fade, but as a majority of the structures in his eyes shifted back from power radiators to light receptors, the resulting agony nearly crushed him. He leaned forward onto his hands, resisting the urge to heave while sweat rolled down his face and the torture intensified. His vision dimmed around the edges, and he gladly slumped forward into the darkness.
The next thing that Sasuke was aware of was a voice. “My, my....What a mess.”
His senses lurched into a crippled form of vigilance, scrambling to identify the threat. He felt a vague stab of annoyance that he hadn’t awoken at the sound of a hand on the door handle, and realized that he felt even more exhausted than when he had first lost consciousness. The ache of his eyes pounded to the pulse of his heart. The only clear improvement was that he was spared the vile nausea of before.
He lay there for several seconds, letting his mind catch up. The smell of sweat was fresh in the air and the wound on his hand still hadn’t clotted, so he couldn’t have been out for more than half an hour. His head was pillowed on something, which was smooth, moving up and down gently, and almost unbearably warm.
He sensed silent steps moving closer, and the familiar voice rang out into the cavernous room again. “But it seems you two are managing to get along after all…” The suggestion sounded positively lewd. Kakashi.
Wincing, his eyelashes parted just enough to let him get his bearings. His vision was terribly hazy, but he could still make out some details. The symbols of Naruto’s seal still blazed obsidian under his cheek, and a blurred nipple lay within his immediate field of view. He must have passed out onto Naruto’s stomach.
He raised his head slightly, nearly having to peel his face away from the feverish skin beneath him. Naruto’s hand, limp fingers tangled in his hair, fell away to his side with the movement. Naruto mumbled something unintelligible but slept on undisturbed, shaggy blonde locks clinging to his face with sweat.
“I still think the cherry tree would have been more romantic than this basement, but it’s really none of my business.” Kakashi’s jovial statement was loud and didn’t make any sense; he was starting to get on Sasuke’s last raw nerve. He pushed himself upright and turned his head towards the sound, preparing to ask just what the fuck that was supposed to mean, when the Copy-nin must have finally seen his face.
Kakashi was at his side in an instant, and Sasuke was too drained to do more than flinch away. The rest of the room dimly swayed into some semblance of view, with a dark and grey blur that had to be Kakashi rocking slowly in the middle. With a spike of irritation, he realized that he was the one pitching vaguely from side to side.
Kakashi used one hand to steady him at the shoulder, as the other gently took hold of his chin and tilted his head towards the muted glow of the only sad little lamp that was still intact. Sasuke’s eyes involuntarily clenched shut; even this weak light drove a lance of fiery anguish through the back of his head.
His former teacher made a hushed sound of sympathy. Using the grip on his chin to anchor him, Kakashi released his shoulder to absently rub at the trails of dried blood on his cheeks.
“Your eyes, Sasuke…” There was a tightness to Kakashi’s tone that he had only ever heard in battle, and Sasuke didn’t have to be able to see to know the grim expression he would be wearing. “What happened?”
His throat felt raw, as if he had been screaming for hours, and his tongue felt like a lump of dried clay in his mouth, but he managed to croak out a few key details. “It was the tea. Neither of us could control our chakra properly. The Kyuubi tried to physically manifest…”
Kakashi urged him to lie back down, and Sasuke was still too tired to protest. After leaning over to check Naruto’s pulse and the responsiveness of his pupils, he focused on Sasuke. “You’re both showing signs of chakra exhaustion, but the notion of poison worries me more.”
Kakashi hesitated, and Sasuke realized what he was considering. Sasuke shook his head. “You know that you can’t call in medi-nin with this. If it becomes common knowledge that Naruto is having this much trouble with the Kyuubi, then the village council will clamber for his abdication.” He shifted on the cold stone floor, heavy eyelids closing. “And that’s the best-case scenario.”
The political ramifications of this could be absolutely catastrophic. If the public knew that the leader of a foreign village, current ally or not, had access to their Hokage’s vital seal, then the only assumption would be that Naruto was being extorted or otherwise compromised. But throw in the fact that the leader in question was Sasuke- a former traitor, missing-nin, and associate of Orochimaru- tampering with the demon fox seal, and the situation moved into the realm of an immediate threat to all of their lives. The older generation hadn’t yet forgotten the terror of facing the Kyuubi in battle.
In fact, the circumstances with the tea could easily appear to be all Sasuke’s doing. Their Hokage went into a room alone with him, and just barely escaped becoming a ravening monster; it would have meant war against Sound without a doubt. Just considering the possibilities made his temples throb.
“No one can know what happened here tonight. Or even that anything out of the ordinary happened at all.” Kakashi nodded gravely, and offered to sneak them both back to Naruto’s apartment where they could rest.
They both had to squeeze into Naruto’s small bed, and Naruto kept kneeing him in the shins, but Sasuke was far beyond caring. He sat numbly through the indignity of Kakashi nursing him like an ill child.
After applying disinfectant and a spare field dressing to his hand and using a warm, wet cloth to scrub his cheeks clean, Kakashi turned to leave. “I know a medi-nin who could handle this with the utmost discretion.” Sasuke wanted to protest once again that no one could be trusted with this, no matter how much faith Kakashi put into them, but his eyes were burning and he wanted nothing more than sleep. He might as well rely on Kakashi’s prudence, as he had once been the one teaching Sasuke the finer points of seeing underneath the underneath.
Naruto moved closer, pressing his face against Sasuke’s neck, hot breath washing over his collarbone. The gentle rhythm was peaceful in its own way, but the habits of a lifetime were difficult to overcome, and he was reluctant to let down his guard with anyone this close to his throat.
On the other hand, there was no guarantee that there wouldn’t be another attempt on Naruto’s life after tonight’s failure. And with the idiot in such close proximity, no one would be able to approach Naruto without alerting him. Perhaps it was for the best. Sasuke closed his eyes and let go of his qualms.
Naruto awoke feeling a bit stiff and sore, and for a quizzical moment he wondered if he had overdone it on the training field again. The fact that Sasuke was with him was the hint that kick-started his brain into the present. However, none of the things he remembered could justify why they were in his bed, Sasuke nestled against his side as if this arrangement were typical.
The Otokage’s face was completely relaxed, hair falling slightly over one eye. Naruto couldn’t resist the temptation, and reached up to brush it back. The tips of his fingers barely grazed the soft, pallid skin of his cheek, but Sasuke had always been a light sleeper. His head shifted minutely on the pillow, the tiniest hint of a frown pulling at his mouth, and the hair fell back down to cover his eye.
He knew that he should leave Sasuke to sleep in peace, but his expression was just so…He wasn’t sure what the word for it was, but it made Naruto smile. Willing to risk it, Naruto took a deep breath and blew at the inky curtain, but the stubborn hair refused to do more than flutter. When the frown deepened and Sasuke made a low noise of annoyance in his throat, Naruto had to hold back a snicker.
He held his breath while Sasuke’s brow smoothed back out into a look of serenity. He watched his face for some time in the dark, the details still distinct when this close. Naruto recalled how this tranquil face had been twisted with rage and fear, emotions that seemed entirely foreign to this older, more mature version of the boy he had known. And those feelings had stemmed from the fact that Naruto had been in jeopardy.
He felt his fondness for the other man grow, warmth spreading within his chest. He inched closer, close enough to see the individual ebony eyelashes laid against his ivory skin. Sasuke…
Naruto really did care for Sasuke, more than he could ever say. For the longest time, everyone had called him a fool because they had never seen Sasuke earn that devotion. But no one would be able to deny that Sasuke had earned it tonight.
Naruto slowly, gently snuck an arm around Sasuke’s far shoulder, hovering near enough to barely rest his cheek against his best friend’s dark head. He tilted his own head, whispering into the silky hair against his lips. “Thanks, bastard. I owe you one.”
The only response was a sleepy hum near his Adam’s apple. He heard the soft click of a cabinet closing in his kitchen, and a gentle glow shone under the closed door. Naruto slid out of bed to investigate, taking care not to jostle Sasuke. One of his emergency candles had been lit and placed on the table, but it gave a weak, flickering illumination to the room that couldn’t compete with the light from outside. The full moon brightened the western window, turning Sakura’s light pink hair subtly silver.
“Sakura-chan…” He made sure to keep his voice low, closing his bedroom door as silently as possible.
She turned towards him, holding two cups, and her face brightened with a relieved smile. “Naruto…” She hurried to set down her burdens and tugged him into a breathless hug. “You had me so worried!” She pulled back to give him a quick visual check, and, finding him in tolerable physical condition, pinched his cheek.
Naruto gave a hushed squawk as she used it as a handle to pull him down to her height, a dangerously intent look in her green eyes. “Naruto…How many times do we have to tell you not to eat or drink anything of unknown origin?”
Naruto winced at both her grip and reminder. “Ehehe…Come on, Sakura-chan. That hurts...” Point made, she let go, and he felt his lip practically snap back into place. He rubbed it absently while she returned her attention to the cups.
“I hope you don’t mind me coming in without knocking, but I figured that you’d be waking up about now, and that you’d be thirsty.” The mention of something to drink was all his body needed to remind him that he was absolutely parched. He accepted the cup of water eagerly, and gulped it down without even a pause for breath.
He gave her a sunny smile as she poured him more. “Thanks, Sakura-chan. You’re the best!”
“And you’re an idiot.” She planted her hands firmly on her hips and gave him an exasperated look. “Honestly, I don’t know how you expect to be Hokage for long if you can’t remember the simplest codes of conduct.”
She really had him there. He set aside the cup as he chuckled nervously and absently scratched the back of his head. “I’m sorry, Sakura-chan.”
“Where would you be if the rest of us weren’t here to look after you?” The remark hit him like an arrow to the heart; he hung his head, feeling twelve years old again. After all of this time, did he really need to rely on others? She sighed, dropping her scolding posture in order to move closer to him. Her voice softened and her expression melded into a look of distress, revealing the concern beneath her reprimands. “Don’t you realize that you could have died?”
“Yeah…” Naruto’s whisper was quiet and grave. He took her petite, capable hands into his own, using his thumbs to rub soothing circles into the back of her palms. “Yeah, I do. I almost did.” Her head bowed, hiding her eyes from view, and he really hoped that she wouldn’t cry. He never, ever wanted to see Sakura-chan cry. “I would have, if Sasuke hadn’t been there.”
He noticed that she’d gone very still at the mention of their former teammate. There was still some hurt there, not matter how strong she became, or how badly she tried to will herself to move on. As someone who had shared that hurt, Naruto could understand. But his experience of the current Sasuke had helped him start the healing process, and Sakura hadn’t had that pleasure yet.
He brought a gentle hand to her chin, tipping her head up to meet his eyes, and spoke with just as much seriousness as before. “He’s changed. He really has.” Naruto looked down at her with beseeching blue eyes, begging her to believe him. “He saved my life, Sakura-chan.” A memory of Sasuke’s face while he’d yelled into Naruto’s own sprang suddenly to mind, the Sharingan eyes glinting with extra moisture in the lamplight. Naruto laughed sheepishly, half-sure that he had imagined it. “He was really worried about me.”
“I see.” Her voice was detached, green eyes looking down and away, avoiding his. After a few tense moments of thought, she looked back up at him. Tears had gathered in the corners of her eyes, but she gave him a brave wavering smile. “I’m glad, Naruto.”
He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her against his chest, and spoke as confidently as possible while she tried to wipe at her eyes surreptitiously. “You’ll be allowed to talk to him now, since you’ll be his doctor while he’s here.” He spared a thought to thank Ba-chan for arguing that loop-hole into the policy restricting contact with the Otokage. Those old goats on the village council probably didn’t even know what hit them.
He grinned against the top of her head, giving her a reassuring squeeze and inhaling the floral scent of her rosy pink hair. “And the next time he comes to Konoha, we’ll all have tea together. I promise.” He pulled back to give her his biggest grin.
“Naruto…” She seemed to hesitate at the idea. A patient, wistful expression countered his zeal, as if she couldn’t believe that he was still childish enough to think everything would be that simple. When his eagerness turned to a vaguely pleading pout, she finally gave in with a sigh. “All right.”
But that brought his thoughts back around to Sasuke again. “Aren’t you going to take a look at him now? He drank the same poisoned tea that I did.” He was shocked to see her shake her head.
“No, the tea wouldn’t have affected him in the same way.” At Naruto’s perplexed look, she continued firmly. “Trust me, he’ll be just fine. I’ll examine his eyes in the morning. With the chakra exhaustion that Kakashi-sensei mentioned, what he needs most now is rest.”
“What do you mean it didn’t affect him?” After a moment’s consideration, the reason for her conviction became clear. “So you’ve already analyzed the tea? Wow, Sakura-chan!”
She smiled, cheeks flushing faintly at the praise. “I just finished before I came here. The first word out of Kakashi-sensei’s mouth when he woke me up was ‘poison’, so I figured that time was of the essence. Thankfully, the active compound in the tea isn’t normally deadly.”
Naruto felt his jaw drop. “What? Really?” It had certainly felt deadly at the time.
She nodded, turning to sit down at the table. Naruto followed her lead and took the seat across from her. The golden glow from the candle allowed shifting shadows to play across her face. “It inhibits the neurons in a very unique way, disrupting the communication between mind and body. This makes chakra control nearly impossible, but other than that, it just causes nausea, tremors, and dizziness. In high doses, it can cause trouble with movement and breathing, but that dosage couldn’t possibly fit within a single teapot.”
Worried eyes searched his face, and she bit her lip before going on. “The thing is, the only person who would have been harmed by the tea was you, Naruto. The reason it’s so dangerous for you is because you’ve had to use your own chakra to suppress the Kyuubi in the last year or so, since the seal has weakened. Anyone else drinking it would just feel ill for about an hour. It looks like it was specifically intended to be used against you.”
He was stunned to think that someone wanted him dead that badly, and he supposed that it had been conceited of him to assume that whoever had planted the tea had been aiming for Sasuke. The Otokage had many potential enemies, most of which were living in Konoha, but it seemed that Naruto was the one who needed to watch his own back.
Sakura’s expression darkened further, and she took a deep breath to calm herself. “But that’s not all. The leaves were from a very rare plant that only grows in a few marshes north of Fire Country.”
“North? As in…” Naruto felt a cold sense of dread move like ice through his veins.
“Yes. Sound Country.” The candlelight seemed to make the anxious angles of her face even more severe. “Naruto…Whoever was trying to kill you wanted Sasuke to take the blame.”
Sasuke wasn’t sure how long he had been sleeping when he heard the front door open and shut. The sound of birds starting to sing could be heard faintly from outside, so it must have been morning already. He realized that Naruto was absent from the bed, but the light tread behind the door wasn’t his; Naruto wouldn’t have thought to make his steps an audible warning of his approach, and Kakashi wouldn’t have seen a point in bothering. That left only one option.
Now that his eyes had had the chance to rest, they refused to open. It didn’t matter, though; he wouldn’t need his eyes. He already had a good idea of which medi-nin Kakashi had in mind. He turned his head towards the bedroom door and waited.
“Otokage-sama…” The voice was older and more womanly, but it was still Sakura’s. His title- said with her voice, in such cold tones- sounded wrong. It irritated him, for reasons that he couldn’t quite place. Perhaps because medi-nin, by nature, weren’t suited to keeping such distance from the people they treated. Or perhaps because he had come to despise this sort of formality, and all the fawning or insincere respect that came with it. Most likely, it was because it was reminding him of her pain, and that he had been the cause.
“Not even my own people call me that.” His voice came out more harsh and demanding than he had intended, but he couldn’t take it back now. He supposed it was just as well, as he had never bothered to spare her feelings, not even as childhood teammates.
It was a trend in their interaction that was impossible to break. There were many things between Sakura and himself that he could never take back; things that he would never choose to take back. The same could be said of him and Naruto, but Naruto had taken all of it in stride, as if it didn’t make any difference. He didn’t know which was more difficult to face: Naruto’s instant forgiveness, or Sakura’s perpetual grudge.
“Then what should I call you?” She sounded somewhat annoyed, but as far as he was concerned, it was a step in the right direction. The feigned disinterest was too fake to be a starting point from which they could make a real change. She would probably need to scream out all of her repressed feelings at him before she could begin to come to terms with this.
But he wasn’t sure what part he was expected to play in her catharsis. His role had been vastly easier with Naruto, as the new Hokage had been more than willing to make the first move and lead Sasuke through the rest. “I’ve never had a preference.” He kept his voice neutral, waiting to see what she would do.
“Sasuke-san, then.” The no-man’s-land placed between them by that honorific would not be traversed today. He refused to make excuses for his bygone actions, and it seemed that she wasn’t ready to let go of the past yet. A stalemate.
“As you like.” The eventual outcome would always be up to her, but he was prepared to remain polite and patient for as long as it took, even if it were ultimately in vain. He could owe her that, at least.
The sudden feel of fingertips on his face nearly caused him to lash out, but he quickly reined in his defensive reflexes. He noticed that she hadn’t hesitated or bothered to ask permission to touch him; the firm hands positioned his face and pulled at his eyelids with medical detachment.
Her stern, mature face swam into sight, but remained stubbornly blurred around the edges. The world had become washed out and leeched of color, and the faint early morning light made his eyes water painfully. After several seconds of being superficially examined, he felt the heated tickle of her chakra probing the abused energy paths around and within his eyes. The warmth retreated, but left a cooling sense of relief in its wake. He found that most of the throbbing ache was gone, and while his vision was still appallingly out of focus, the light wasn’t such a torment.
There was a troubled wrinkle between her brows, but she nodded decisively. “Your eyes are damaged, but not past the point of healing. You’re actually quite lucky, to be honest.”
Her fingers left his temples, as she turned to pull a long strip of white bandage from a bag at her hip. “You need to let them rest for at least three days without direct light. And then no doujutsu for two weeks beyond that.” She began to wind the cloth around his head, and he held his hair out of the way without having to be asked. “Please have a medi-nin examine you then, before you attempt to use the Sharingan again.” He found that he actually preferred not being able to see her face while speaking.
“My people will need to be informed that I’ve chosen to stay an extra day.” Sasuke always crossed the border of Fire Country with an honor guard of four shinobi, though he was bound by law to never lead armed ninja into Konoha. The Sound Four would wait encamped outside the village, as restless and wary as wolves in a cage, until his business with the Hokage concluded. If they weren’t notified of his decision before their chosen rendezvous, he had a feeling that Karin would try to storm the gates herself. “At least one of them will need to be admitted into the village to verify that I’m not being held against my will.”
“Kakashi-sensei wanted me to tell you that he spoke with them last night, and that he would be helping them slip in tonight after midnight.” Kakashi had no doubt given them all of the gory details, but they knew better than to interfere without a direct order from their Otokage. As incensed as Karin most likely was, the other three would act as the voice of reason. He could rely on them to remain where they were in the meantime without drawing unwelcome attention to the situation.
“And…” He heard her waver for the first time since she had entered the room. His blind focus on her sharpened. “I’d like to thank you, for saving Naruto’s life. He’s…a very special person, to a lot of people.” Naruto; despite their many differences, they had one piece of common ground, even after all these years. Ground that had nearly been stolen out from under their feet.
Looking back on the events of the previous night- the pain, fear, and Naruto’s pleading whispers- he felt a dark, familiar purpose settle in his gut. Naruto, who loved life more than anyone Sasuke had ever known, had been willing to ask for death. The thought of it turned his stomach, even now. And all of that suffering had been planned in advance. Someone was responsible.
“I’m going to find who did this.” He said it with complete, lethal certainty, as if he could already see the resulting blood spray on the inside of his eyelids.
He heard her gasp softly, and realized that both his expression and tone must be very familiar to her. The words seemed to echo in the silence between them, drawing forth the ghosts of other phrases.
An ambition…to kill a certain man.
Deep inside my heart, I’ve already decided on revenge…I’ll never be like you and Naruto.
Revenge means everything to me…As long as I can have my revenge, I could care less what happens to me, or the whole world for that matter.
“You haven’t changed.” There was a very final sound to that phrase, as if it were a jury’s verdict. He felt her rise from the bed, and an unexpectedly sad quality tinted the firm voice. “We all care for him, Sasuke.” He was surprised to hear her drop the honorific from his name. “But I think you still need to learn the difference between justice and revenge.”
And with that, she was gone.
Naruto had arrived on time that morning, but something about him seemed off. Perhaps it was his smile; it was ever so slightly strained. Sai had vast experience when it came to faking smiles, so Naruto didn’t stand a chance in fooling him.
But his restless and tired demeanor could easily be attributed to his meeting with the Otokage last night, so Sai had let it be. It couldn’t have been an argument between them, as that would have left Naruto grumbling about it to anyone within earshot, but Sai suspected that the Otokage had said something cold or callous, and Naruto needed some time to himself to feel hurt and stew about it.
The first indication that the problem ran deeper was when he returned home that evening to find Kakashi sprawled out on his couch. He didn’t bother to turn on the lights, as that would betray their silhouettes to the neighborhood; this was clearly not a social call on Kakashi’s part.
Sai smiled politely into his dim living room. “Good evening, Kakashi-san.”
“Isn’t it? Especially when compared to the night I had last night.” Ah, it seemed that whatever had been bothering Naruto went beyond the realm of petty squabbles. “I need a list of names.” Kakashi continued to stare up at the ceiling, speaking in an undertone that was specifically intended to prevent eavesdropping. “Two lists, actually.”
Sai moved closer, perching himself on the arm of the couch, and pitched his voice in the same undertone. “Of what nature?”
“I need the names of everyone who’s had access to the Hokage Tower in the past three days.” Kakashi paused to look him soberly in the eye. “I also need to know everyone who has ever been under Danzou’s command, or whose loyalties may lie with him.”
“Ah…That is a complicated request.” Sai paused to consider the implications of this carefully. Some kind of political intrigue, no doubt. Had someone tried to listen in on the Kage’s meeting? But spy or no, as ANBU Captain he was sworn to a vow of silence; he reported only to the Hokage himself. “You know that I can’t disclose that kind of information. Not even to you, Kakashi-san.”
“I think you’ll be interested to hear what all of this is about.”
Kakashi was able to narrow down the pertinent facts to five minutes. The tainted tea, the Kyuubi, Sasuke’s intervention, and the plant’s origins. He made a point to emphasize that the threat to Naruto’s life had been very real and, even worse, meticulously planned.
Nothing about Sai’s face or body language changed, but Kakashi wouldn’t have lived as long as he had if he hadn’t been able to read auras with perfect accuracy. Sai’s eyes had taken on the remote gaze they’d had when he first joined Team Seven; the focused, intent look of someone who had a mission instead of a life.
It reminded Kakashi that he was lounging on the couch of a first-class assassin.
Sai looked down at his lap, eyes closing, and made a decision. When he looked up again, there was no hesitation. The sly dark eyes seemed even more slanted, sharpened by killing intent, and his normally boyish tones had deepened.
“Uzumaki Naruto. Uchiha Sasuke. Myself. Hatake Kakashi. Hayashi Shizuma. Teshima Masakuni. Ishihara Reiko. Okita Kazuhiko…”
He despised having to sneak through his own village, but caution was necessary. The new Hokage had a powerful watchdog, and even Danzou didn’t want the likes of Hatake Kakashi nipping at his heels.
He rapped twice on the back door of an izakaya that had been closed for the evening, which was just as well; he wouldn’t be caught dead here during business hours. One of his ANBU opened the door and he slipped inside, undergoing the usual identity verification jutsu and security checks.
The other two were already present and seated at a scrubbed table. Mitokado Homura and Utatane Koharu both looked at him expectantly, and he had to bear the burden of voicing their failure.
“It’s true. The demon child lives.” If the jinchuuriki had been killed, he wouldn’t put it past Hatake to arrange for a substitute in order to buy time. But it was no product of henge or genjutsu that had sat in the Hokage’s office this morning.
Homura was predictably outraged. He pushed his glasses up his nose with one hand in an irritated gesture. “This is unacceptable. The demon was always a threat to the village, but now with the Uchiha involved, things have gotten completely out of hand.”
But if Homura were outraged, then Koharu was livid. Her wrinkled cheeks were flushed with color, though she kept her voice restrained. The calm words dripped with venom.
“Yes…We’ve had our doubts for years, but when that drink-sodden gambler surrendered village secrets to a known enemy, she went too far.” An Uchiha, and one that had also been a pet of Orochimaru. The very thought was nauseating.
Danzou shook his head at the sheer folly. “Tsunade-hime has either been laboring under the impression that Uchiha Sasuke is harmless, or has understood the danger and still chosen to disregard it completely.” It was galling, but true. The Godaime was either reckless or a traitor; the thought was especially vexing, as they had striven against her whims for years to no avail.
Koharu scoffed at the concept of Tsunade being ingenuous. “She cannot possibly be that naïve. The Uchiha have always been a clan of traitors. Hubris and treachery have always run strong in their cursed blood.”
Homura took a moment to consider Tsunade’s potential motives, but drew a blank. Choosing to take such a course of action for the good of the village was simply inconceivable. “Whatever her reasoning, this cannot be tolerated. Konoha must maintain a show of strength in order to survive, and every weakness could be a fatal flaw.”
His frown deepened further as he continued. “Uzumaki Naruto is the largest and most heinous flaw this village has ever possessed. The only other that even comes close was the presence of the Uchiha clan.” Tsunade’s weakness for the demon boy, and Hashirama‘s weakness for the Uchiha clan; in the end, their problems sprung from the Senju clan’s soft touch.
The shinobi world was built and sustained with the concepts of subterfuge and secrecy. There could be no allies in that world, as a village could change allegiances with the wind. The comrades that you aid one year could be slitting your throat the next. The only way to prevent war was to remain strong: to reveal no weakness while discovering the weaknesses of others. The five great shinobi nations were constantly at war, whether it be with actual bloodshed or simply using their might as a deterrent. There was no room for vulnerability; there was no room for Uzumaki Naruto or Uchiha Sasuke in that world.
Danzou drew their attention to himself once again. “We are all agreed on the reasons why they both must be excised as soon as possible. To do so while they’re together is the neatest solution.” Eliminating them separately was always a possibility, but the death of the jinchuuriki in the Uchiha’s company would eliminate the need for a cover story.
And with the Otokage implicated in the murder, then they would have the opportunity to remove yet another threat. War with Sound would be messy, but it would be the show of strength that Konohagakure needed so desperately to maintain its prestige after this fiasco. “We must simply be persistent.”
Koharu’s clever eyes scrutinized him. “As soon as possible, you say. But the damage may already be done. The Uchiha may have sold our secrets to another hidden village, and if he hasn’t already, the common people could do just as much through gossip. The two of them are too renowned and unusual for the whispers not to fly. How long, do you suppose, until another hidden village takes notice?” Danzou sighed, but they had no choice but to wait.
“Patience. There will be another chance.”
Ino: “Welcome to our flower shop!”
Sai: “Good afternoon, Ino. I’d like a dozen red roses, please.”
Ino: “Oh?” leans forward, bats eyelashes “Are they for anyone I know?”
Ino: O.o “N-Naruto?”
Sai: “Yes. He wants to give them to Sasuke.”